Circles turns two; helping lift residents from poverty


By CATHY DOBSON, The Observer


Leaders of a unique anti-poverty initiative in Sarnia-Lambton say the Circles program has helped six people beat poverty and become self-sufficient.

Five graduated from Lambton College this spring and one is a labourer's apprentice.

Thirty-eight families, including 75 children, have participated in Circles since it began two years ago, said co-ordinator Gayle Montgomery.

The program is the first in Canada and uses a community approach to support and befriend those who want to leave poverty behind.

"This is a two-year milestone," said Montgomery. "I'm excited with the six because many of these families come from systemic poverty."

Education is key to self-sufficiency, as is a network of community members ready to advise and donate their time, she said.

Circles works with three full-time staff, as well as 54 mentors known as allies, and 46 volunteers who assist with childcare and meals.

It's an approach that has seen widespread success in the United States and is garnering a lot of interest in Canada.

"We've been asked to be the national training site for educating other communities about Circles," said Montgomery.

Charlene Gordon, a 30-year-old single mom, spoke to county council and said Circles has changed her life.

Gordon said she left an abusive relationship and found herself on social assistance for the first time in her life.

In the past year, Circles has opened up opportunities and provided resources that have allowed her to return to school, Gordon said, brushing a tear away.

"It's great to have people rooting for me. This cycle of living below the poverty line will stop if I make the changes."

Coun. Bev MacDougall asked if any local banks are part of the Circles movement.

At least one credit union offers bank accounts without fees, Montgomery said.

But loans are difficult to get if you are impoverished, she said.

Circles is trying to raise money to assist with the purchase of cars and other amenities that will get people back to work.

Of the Circles participants, or leaders as they're called, 63% have increased earnings. Another 56% have increased education and 38% no longer collect social assistance.